Thursday, May 31, 2007

Logo Conceited

Certainly you recognize the logo above. Its owner leaps right to the front of your mind, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it? Perhaps not.

You know I usually steer clear of overt criticism. On the other hand, of the dozens if not hundreds of logo marks for which I have been the Creative Director in the past 30 years, I don’t recall even recommending a candidate and a brand that’s been this…pretentious.

Maybe “arcane” is a kinder word. It’s a cuneiform inscription: the earliest-known written appearance of the word “freedom” (amagi), or “liberty.” That’s the gloss which many scholars have put upon it. It is taken from a clay tablet written about 2300 BC in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash.

The glyph and the word Amagi also serves as the imprint for all Liberty Fund books: an imprint that brings the past 100 years' classics of liberal economic and political theory to life for today’s college students, according to the website. You can find works that aren’t considered classics. However, the Liberty Fund considers them important to understanding a society of free and responsible individuals.

I won’t cast tablets at the organization’s intention. Based in Indianapolis, The Liberty Fund is a privately held educational foundation founded in 1960 by Pierre F Goodrich. When he died, he left much of his fortune to encourage the study of the ideal of a free society. The foundation develops, supervises and finances activities “to foster thought and encourage discourse on enduring issues pertaining to liberty.”

Well and good. But somebody, perhaps Goodrich himself, came up with this cuneiform logo and name. It is more than a little obscure, an academic curiosity that doesn’t transmit anything to the viewer except, “What the heck is that?” So the website helpfully explains it. That’s a body blow for any logo mark.

Yes, I do understand: every logo has to start somewhere. And I haven’t walked a mile in the Amagi logo mark creator’s shoes, especially since the creator is 4,500 years deceased. Passed on. Joined the Choir Invisible back when Sumer ruled supreme in Mesopotamia.

How many people really know that the BMW mark is a spinning white propeller blade against a blue sky? It reflects the origins of BMW as a maker of military aircraft engines for the Germans during World War I – but it’s associated today with outstanding motor vehicles. How about the Nike “swoosh?” It represents the wing of the eponymous Greek goddess. It first appeared in 1971 and has been gradually simplified as its frame increased. “Run fast,” it says.

So I do come from the school that says a logo ought to tell a story, even if it takes a few years for it to catch on (if ever). Most logos never make it to the Big Show: a common, even universal understanding that a particular mark stands for a specific brand like P&G’s moon-and-stars. Coca-Cola’s script. Disney’s Magic Kingdom castle.

Advertising what your logo stands for is really quite an important step, telling its story and wrapping it around your own.

Amagi, however, may just contentedly sit there being obscure. To be fair, the Amagi imprint does come up in the first two Google listings. (Several other listings point out that amagi means “heavenly castle” in Japan, being both the name of a city and a World War II Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier of the Unryū class – never deployed.)

You have to be acquainted with the brand name Amagi before you can look it up. Correct?

I wouldn’t have know about amagi at all save for its particular mention in a superb new book by Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Ancient World. It’s a fine, engaging history, let me tell you, with enough interleaved humor to help you realize this is one smart author with wide-ranging interests. I wouldn’t say 777 pages is a quick read although I’m already halfway through it. I recommend it strongly.

In addition to pointing out that the cuneiform marks were snapped up by the Liberty Fund, “simply proving that no good social reform goes unexploited,” (page 93), Bauer also remarks that the term amagi is arguably the first time the idea of “freedom” shows up in human written language. She notes (as does the Liberty Fund site) that amagi literally means “return to the mother.”

That is, the ruler of Lagash intended to return his kingdom to an earlier state, one that is more pure, “the state of justice intended by the gods.”

With this knowledge in mind, we could say that the Liberty Fund logo mark really means, “When you get tired of reading our books, go home to your momma.”

I am exaggerating for effect. Every company has the right to portray itself the way it likes. This cuneiform idea, however, is too precious. Maybe I just don’t have clients who are classically educated enough to appreciate the oddball nature of this brand name and logo mark. On the other hand, who knew what “Google” stood for when it was introduced?

Or maybe my clients recognize that we aren’t playing around outside the walls of academia. The Nike swoosh may have come from the Winged Victory of Samothrace, but it really means “I can beat you with one foot in a cast.”


Stephen W. Croxson said...

Richard, while obscure and pretentious were mentioned, I'm surprised that "plagiarism" wasn't also listed in your observation. Didn't they take the image from the clay tablet?

Betty Wong said...

if my memory serves me, this cuneiform looks like or is similar to one in the office of an old client of mine. Years ago, I recall that this was “chiseled” into the very grand entry hall.

I recall its meaning is as you describe it – “earliest known” “freedom” and found on a clay tablet or chiseled in stone (this I don’t recall accurately). I used it in their brochure.

Neat symbol, neat that the oldest glyph means freedom. And being that old, there is no copyright on it.

Kevin said...

Yeah, you're right, logos should be recognizable ... to the audience of interest.

It's funny you bring this particular logo up, because in the past (many, many years ago) I happened to have purchased lots of books from this publisher. The logo itself is a curiosity, but I remember being impressed at how cool it looks on the endleaves of books, when it is repeated across and down the page. So, the logo, as an image, has that going for it.

And, for the audience they're trying to reach, a very academically-curious audience, it does work. That kind of consumer probably tends to dig deeper into the meaning of things than most, so having the logo drive readers curiosity to learn more, and thus discover about the word, the Sumerians, the world's first writing, etc. ... at the end, the consumer will likely say, "jeez, thanks for giving me all this education about something I didn't know!", and they'll appreciate it.

But yeah, otherwise, I'm sure most folks react: "what the heck is that? Chicken stratches?!"

Susan Kirkland said...

Reputations proceed image in academia; their client base is a captive one and the logo was probably a vanity selection by the founder of the company, as is so often the case--just a guess, though. Obscurity serves in the intellectual communities of the "look it up" mentality.

I wonder if "return to the mother" might be interpretted to mean return to innocence, return to the source, return to the nurturer or perhaps even, return to the perfection of rebirth. Well, that was fun.

Good topic, as ever.


Anonymous said...

im glad i stubled upon this article.i am a young man interested in history, humanities, and an advocate of life in general. i actually read the book by Susan Wise Bauer, and the king who introduced that symbol was Urukagina, as Susan puts it; he was the jimmy carter of his time, promoting prosperity and slashing debt and taxes in the city of lagash. Although his reign was cut short by invading rivals from another city (the cities of mesopotamia were commonly quarrelling with eachother) this king introduced a concept into society that was thousands of years ahead of its time. i was astonsihed at the story, and decided to set out and find the symbol. today i am headed to the tattoo parlour to get it permanently inscribed on my body. the image itself is not beautiful at first sight, but the story behind it is. and i believe it is one everyone should know. thanks for the extra info, ill be sure to check out some other blogs of yours.
-a student